How School Buildings Can Connect Students To The Environment (FastCoDesign)

In Denmark, BIG uses the beauty and meaning of landscape to design a new learning experience.

In his ethnography Wisdom Sits in Places, the anthropologist Keith Basso reveals the Western Apaches’ poetic sense of place. Landscape symbolizes a community’s history and is intrinsically linked with the memory of ancestors and their way of life. As children come of age, they demonstrate their maturity by recognizing and honoring the stories of each place. The land, learning, and culture are one.

As we strive to shape society’s current relationship with the natural environment into one of respect, we need to create places that convey a new narrative and a connection to nature. As a member of the Western Apache explains, “Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dries up. You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you? Well, you also need to drink from places.” Elders tell their children, “Drink from places, then you can work on your mind.”

Bjarke Ingels Group’s design of the Vilhelmsro Primary School in Asminderoed, Denmark, is a prime example of how a building can foster a deep connection with its surroundings. BIG took inspiration from a living system, with the undulating hills providing the strongest sense of structure. The building’s sloping roof merges with the hillside, blurring the distinction between the natural and manufactured landscape to form one organic structure. The natural features are at once a beautiful backdrop for this future learning ecology and an integral part of the school’s nature and sustainability-focused curriculum. Sunlight streams deep into the classrooms, which organically flow from one to another, celebrating the nonlinear, playful reality of learning.

For the Western Apaches, place and the values of a community combine to ensure future generations continue to live by this vision. BIG shows us that design can instill in our children a narrative of the deep relationship between us and the natural environment. With this intrinsic knowledge, graduates of the school will go on to respect the natural world and recognize the true wisdom that sits in places.


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